Cannabis plant. Credit: Christine Stuart photo

The constitutionality of a Connecticut law legalizing cannabis was challenged last week by a group of Stamford residents who are suing city officials and asking a judge to stop the operation of cannabis businesses throughout the state.

The complaint, filed Wednesday in Superior Court, comes from the Stamford Neighborhoods Coalition and more than a dozen individual plaintiffs and is directed at Mayor Caroline Simmons and the city’s Zoning Board.

The group is seeking an injunction to bar the operation of cannabis businesses, both in Stamford and Connecticut as a whole, on the grounds that the state’s 2021 law legalizing the possession and commercial sale of the substance was pre-empted by the federal Controlled Substances Act.

“Under federal law anyone involved in the growing, manufacturing, distribution or dispensing, or possession with intent to manufacture, grow, distribute or dispense marijuana is marijuana trafficking subject to federal prosecution under the federal Controlled Substances Act,” attorney David Herz wrote in the complaint.

“It is therefore unconstitutional and can not be relied upon by the City of Stamford or its Zoning Board to permit the illegal enterprise that is every Cannabis business,” the complaint alleged.

The lawsuit also argues that the cannabis law violated an equal rights provision of the Constitution of Connecticut. The 2021 law created a Social Equity Council intended to ensure that the new commercial market benefited the Connecticut communities most impacted by the historic enforcement of drug prohibitions.

The complaint refers to the provision creating the council as a “scheme” that is “impermissibly selected based on race.”

“The purpose of the Social Equity Counsel is to entitle a certain set of people to exclusive public emoluments,” the lawsuit alleged.

Another section of the lawsuit asks a judge to halt the activities of the city Zoning and Planning boards, both of which the group contends include members whose terms have expired. The complaint objected to efforts by the boards to effect regulations and zoning approval for retail cannabis locations within the city.

“Siting Cannabis facilities anywhere in Stamford necessarily increases criminal activity in Stamford, putting children at greater risk,” the lawsuit said.

The Stamford mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the complaint early Tuesday. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Attorney General William Tong said his office was reviewing the lawsuit and evaluating its next steps. 

Although cannabis remains a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law, as of March more than 21 states had adopted policies allowing for some form of recreational cannabis use and/or sale. Since 2015, congressional appropriations bills have also included provisions which bar the Department of Justice from using its funding to prevent some states from implementing medical marijuana policies, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service

“Thus far, the federal response to states’ legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana largely has been to allow states to implement their own laws,” the report’s authors wrote. “The Department of Justice (DOJ) has nonetheless reaffirmed that marijuana growth, possession, and trafficking remain crimes under federal law irrespective of states’ marijuana laws. Federal law enforcement has generally focused its efforts on criminal networks involved in the illicit marijuana trade.”

Connecticut’s regulated adult-use market launched in January and commercial sales have increased each month since then. Dispensaries brought in more than $13 million in sales in July, according to the Department of Consumer Protection.

Last week, a judge in New York temporarily barred regulators there from approving retail dispensary licenses through a restraining order in a case challenging a similar law meant to prioritize licenses for businesses owned by people previously impacted by drug enforcement.